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Finding Archaeological Treasure in Cantona

One of the volcanic-rock pyramids at Cantona.Cantona is one of the largest urban settlements ever discovered in Mesoamerica, sprawling across nearly five square miles of remote, arid land in northeastern Puebla. Yet the remarkable ruins are rarely visited, despite being described by people who have been there as well-preserved, mysterious, beautiful, and relatively easy to get to by car from the capital. In fact, on the afternoon that our small group toured the site, we were the only ones there (aside from a few workers). This meant we had the grounds — and the breathtaking views — to ourselves, which is not something most travelers would complain about.

Cantona was once an active commercial center in central Mexico. Experts believe that the fortified metropolis, perhaps founded by the Olmecs or the Chichimecs around A.D. 50, thrived between the 7th and 10th centuries. At its peak, some 80,000 people lived there. “Its prosperity depended to a great extent on the mining and trade of obsidian extracted from the Oyameles and Zaragoza deposits, located only [three miles] from the city,” Mexican archaeologists noted in their application to have Cantona designated as an official UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 2001. “In this sense, it was competing with Teotihuacan, which mined and traded obsidian extracted from the Sierra de las Navajas, in the state of Hidalgo.” (Obsidian was used to produce arrowheads, knife blades, and other tools throughout central Mexico.)

French explorer Henri de Saussure claimed to have discovered Cantona in 1855, but the site was a secret only to outsiders; locals had known of its existence for centuries. Indeed, the name Cantona may be derived from the Nahuatl word caltonal, or “sun house,” which seems to make sense, given the site’s location on a desert-like plain near the Puebla-Veracruz border. Nonetheless, formal excavation didn’t begin until the 1990s and remains far from complete today.

“It’s difficult to decide which aspect of this old city is the most amazing: the intricate network of streets and avenues lined with sidewalls, the ingenious way it takes advantage of the topography … or the combination of volcanic rock with yucca or pine for construction.” —Mexico Desconocido

Cantona is a maze of patios, pyramids, and ball courts connected by walkways.Cantona comprises many small pyramids built from volcanic rock and features at least two dozen ball courts, the most ever recorded in ancient Mexico. Nearly half a million ceramic vessels have been found to date. The site also contains more than 100 civic and religious plazas, 2,000 patios (living spaces), and 20 different known gateways or points of access.

“Cantona possesses an extensive and complex network of communication routes, from large avenues to small alleys,” Jimena Acevedo wrote recently in the national travel magazine Mexico Desconocido. “There are around 500 streets that perfectly connect all of the points in the city and lead to its highest part, where the important structures, like temples, ball courts, and rulers’ houses stood. Some of the avenues are actually more than a kilometer long and others connect this old city with diverse towns nearby.”

The Cantona site today is located between the towns of Tepeyahualco and Coyoaco. It’s open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; admission is less than 50 pesos. To get there by car from the city of Puebla, take Highway 150 east to the Amozoc toll booth, then Highway 129 north (toward Teziutlán). When you get to Oriental, take the local road toward Tepeyahualco and then follow signs to Cantona. Public transportation is not a great option of reaching this isolated area. Hint: You’ll need take buses as far as you can, and then hire a taxi to go the distance. The National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH) appears to be offering some expert-led tours in English; inquire ahead.

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